The Eastern Oregon Fire Museum in La Grande has become less accessible to the public recently, but local history buffs concerned about its future can relax.
The museum and its treasure trove of artifacts are not going the way of the traditional fireman’s pole or the “stove pipe” leather firefighter helmet. Three Northeast Oregon entrepreneurs are stepping forward to extinguish any such concerns.
The men are creating a brewery and restaurant within the fire museum, one which will blend the museum’s historical artifacts and photos into its decor.
“It will be firehouse themed. We are super excited to make this happen,” said Scott McConnell, of La Grande, an economics professor at Eastern Oregon University.
McConnell, along with Nick Fairbanks, of La Grande, and Travis Hansen, of Baker City, are creating Side A Brewing, a brewery and restaurant set to open within a year. More than just business partners, McConnell, Fairbanks and Hansen are lifelong friends who grew up together in Alpena, Michigan. This common thread contributes to an easy rapport they have with one another.
“It helps us have the same mindset. We work well together because we understand where we came from,” Hansen said.
All three bring special levels of expertise to the project. McConnell has taught economics at EOU for four years and has 12 years of experience in the restaurant business. Hansen is a chef who recently worked for 10 years at Widmer Brothers Brewery in Portland, where he was its head chef. Fairbanks has 16 years of experience in the brewing industry.
The three men with Michigan roots chose Side A Brewing as the name of their business because firefighters refer to the front of a building as “side A,” McConnell said. This name reflects the respect McConnell, Hansen and Fairbanks have for the fire museum they will be operating in.
“It is invaluable to (be) associated with a historic treasure like the fire museum,” Fairbanks said.
The fire museum space housed the La Grande Fire Department for many decades before the department’s present building on Cove Avenue opened about 13 years ago. The fire museum, built largely through the efforts of the late Don Keeling, a tireless community volunteer, opened about a decade ago and was once much more accessible than it is today. Initially the Union County Chamber of Commerce had office space outside the museum’s entrance, and its staff let people visit the museum during chamber operating hours. The chamber moved out of this space about 2-1/2 years ago. Since then, the museum has been open to visitors only by appointment. It presently is not open to visitors while renovation work is being done by Side A Brewing.
The fire museum is owned by the city and leased to Hose Co. No. 1, a volunteer group of people who oversee the building, which is subleasing the west side of it to Side A Brewing. The west side offers more open space for the brewery, which Hansen thinks is ideal.
“It will create a festive beer hall environment,” Hansen said.
Hansen, Fairbanks and McConnell hope that arrangements can be made to allow the east side of the museum to be open during brewery hours.
“As people are waiting they could grab a beer and walk around the museum,” McConnell said. “We would like to draw more people into the museum.”
Fairbanks offers a similar sentiment.
“We want to keep the museum rolling,” he said.
Side A Brewing recently received $40,000 from the City of La Grande’s Urban Renewal Agency for general building improvements. These include upgrading the sewer system and making the brewery’s restrooms compliant with federal ADA standards.
McConnell noted that because the city owns the fire museum building, La Grande will ultimately benefit from these improvements.
He said Side A Brewing will be filling a void, because La Grande is the only city in Oregon with at least 7,000 people that lacks a brew pub, which he defines as a brewery with a restaurant. This helps explain the strong interest in the Side A Brewing project McConnell senses.
“People are always asking us when it will open,” he said.
McConnell is excited about the opportunity to not only start a potentially successful business but also to help the community.
“We are putting one of La Grande’s most iconic buildings to use and maintaining its historic significance,” McConnell said.
Fairbanks said it is fascinating to work in the old firehouse and museum building because of all the historic features they have encountered.
“It really makes everything a little more interesting,” he said. “It has a lot of built-in character.”
Emmitt Cornford, a member of Hose Co. No. 1’s board and former captain for the La Grande Fire Department, said the brewery will help the Eastern Oregon Fire Museum. He explained the brewery’s presence will result in more people seeing it and the lease money it generates for Hose Co. No. 1 will help cover its expenses.
“I think this will help the museum expand and continue functioning,” Cornford said.